The Double Entendre of the Artist Selling Out

Seems like visual artists carry more baggage regarding being true to their art than other genres. Sure the rockers with message music from the Sixties and early Seventies who later turned up sponsored by beer or credit card companies took some early criticism. Where they took it was right to the bank. Today, does anybody care if the likes of Bob Dylan and U2 are selling travel packages to their concerts?

Are film makers, actors, or other artists held accountable in the court of public opinion for being as successful as they can be?

Still, visual artists are left to worry about their reputation. Oh, he painted to make money, She made her work to satisfy her collectors. LIke that is a sin. I would agree that Andy Warhol did not have in mind that his "Green Car Crash" piece was created with the thought it would be so collectible it would later sell at a Warhol record auction price of $71 million plus. Nevertheless, he pandered to his collectors and the media in the most masterful of ways and his ability to do so helped create the aura that turned into the frenzy of buying for his work at the May 16, 2007 Christie's auction.

Somehow, visual artists stlll struggle with the notion of being true to their art. Many find themselves painting under aliases so to disguise their more commercial work. Heaven forbid it be revealed they painted pieces with the commercial market in mind. The concept lingers on in the digital fine art reproduction arena where artists continue to sell limited editions.

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Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use

Yes, I realize galleries are addicted to limited editions as a marketing tool and I agree what is scarce is precious. But, I firmly believe that the idea that a piece of art is part of a limited edition is not the chief buying criteria for most buyers. They want to buy it because it fills some other need. Whether it's the proverbial couch piece, or more romantically because it stirs some emotions within them that compells them to want to own and live with the work.

Today, fine art digital printing has evolved to the point that we can now make the piece to the size most appropriate for the buyers needs. It can be reproduced endlessly with the reverse promise of previous technologies in that the likelihood is the later pieces will be better made due to improving techniques, substrates, inks, dyes, equipment and software. I will contend more money is lost selling limited editions than is made. Some will argue most artists rarely sell out their editions anyway, so what is the harm. Good point. I think every artist with his or her salt has at least one or two pieces that have the ability to sell well for years. Problem is, there is no way of knowing in advance which piece or pieces those will be. When the art is limited, the chance it will sell well for years is lost.

Here's an example. An artist creates an edition of 300 at $1,000 retail for a total of $300,000. If the same piece sold 1,000 pieces at $750 retail, the net is more than double at $750,000. I don't think artists have to discount 25% to sell unlimited pieces. Maybe 10%, perhaps 15% at the most. If the work has intrinsic value based on all the things people consider when they buy art, e.g., reputation, content, size, market and so forth, then it will sell at its "value" without the gimmickry of a limited edition. The mystique of the "giclee" monicker does not alter the fact that any reasonably sophistcated buyer realizes anything that comes out of a computer can be reproduced at will.

When you offer a limited edition digital print, you have to sell the veracity of the artist, the publisher and the gallery that the edition size will be honored. Why not sell on the intrinsic value of the piece? You can still sign, even number for that matter. Just don't limit. The numbering convention is yours to conceive. I suggest 1/oe, 2/oe, where oe equals open edition. The early numbers could still become collectible. Perhaps some other numbers such as the artist's birthday, the year the piece was made and so could make them collectible in later years. Who knows what aspects collectors will put on anything years from now. But if the work holds up, you can bet some of the signed open edition pieces will have greater value than others.

I have written about this concept before and promise to continue to work to engage the art print community in the dialog and discussion of the merits of unlimited digital prints. In thinking about this idea, it struck me as odd that "selling out" in the sense of following the money when creating art is a huge no-no for artists, yet having a "sold out" edition, or "selling out" an edition was something to strive for. Why she has four "sold out" editions. It becomes a comical twist of words, or an art double entendre, if you will. My advice is to seriously consider how to sell more art rather than concentrating on selling less in the form of limited editions.

Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use
Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use

All said, I do think there is a place for limiteds. If the edition is truly limited. For instance, an artist creates a small edition of hand-embellished (by the artist) pieces to sell in a low edition of 100 or less, that idea has merit. Even then, I would stipulate that an open edition of the same piece is available as an open edition piece available in the size most appropriate for the collectors needs.

Bottom line is the the bottom line, it's your money, your family and your future. If you are reading this, you very likely aren't thinking about how to get a show into MOMA. More power to you if you are, but reality for most artists who are full-time is they need to maximize their earning capacity without "selling out." I think by limiting digital print editions, artists are selling themselves out of being allowed to make as much money on reproduction as the market will bear. If that' s the case, there is something wrong with this picture (pun intended) and it ought to be fixed.

Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use
Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use


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  1. Barney,
    A great subject! May I chime in with a couple of thoughts based on real experience as an artist and art rep who sold many hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of art, including lots of my own, over a 20 year career – everything from posters, prints (open and S/N) to giclees and originals?

    Artists and many buyers are confused about what constitutes a LIMITED edition. Original prints such as etchings, mezzotints, stone lithographs, serigraphs, etc. were hand pulled by artists in very small editions, from tens to low hundreds. “Limited,” meant something then and APs (because they were usually restricted to no more than 10% of the total edition) had a special appeal and to some collectors were worth more than prints in the full edition. The aesthetic quality was the same as any other print in the edition. That’s still the case, but not many artists will put in the time and effort to hand pull prints.

    Then came commercial, four color, lithography and “fine art” publishers began selling LIMITED editions, usually 500 at the low end anywhere up to tens of thousands for freak editions by artists like Bev Doolittle, who hid images within images and caught the public’s imagination with a “cute” visual trick. They were sold for whatever the market would bear and their decline in value to whatever the paper is worth now is a well-deserved fate.

    Many artists caught the fever and self-published their own “limited edition” lithos at their own expense lured by the arithmetic of a thousand prints they hoped would sell for dollars, but costing just pennies apiece to produce. All over this country there are probably thousands of stacks of unsold limited edition prints moldering under artists’ beds because they sold half a dozen prints and then tired of the work of marketing.

    Enter digital printing and Giclees. When I was on the road selling art, they were the “wave” of the future. Now they are the “flood” of the present and are gradually squeezing hand pulled, original prints out of the marketplace. I got on the bandwagon early and offered giclees to my interior designer buyers, got the artists I dealt with to limit the number of any image they printed to 150, so I could, honestly, call it a limited edition. The added “wrinkle” I offered (and recommend to artists printing giclees today) was to tell my clients, “I can have this image printed to your size specs on canvas or paper.” No matter what size was custom printed on what substrate, it was part of the agreed total of 150. That helps sales to the decorative art market and it’s still a good idea.

    I also sold my own work when I was on the road. In some years I sold $20,000 – $30,000 worth of images I created using a “kind-of” airbrush look allowing me to utilize hand-cut stencils to produce duplicate images in a variety of color ways. I signed these with a nom-de-brush: “Claude” short for Claude Le Chat, the artist of record. Claude was my pet Chat, who liked to add a paw print or two if not watched carefully. I referred to these as limited (I could only stand doing a limited number before tiring of image) and I numbered them serially using roman numerals. There was no /number in the edition, which remained “open” until I ran out of patience or ready buyers.

    I did not hide my name because I was ashamed of the work, but because, if the designer didn’t like the art, he or she might feel hesitant about saying, “That really stinks!” for fear of hurting my feelings and limiting my chance to find out what would suit better so I could sell another artist’s work that was more appropriate. I ALWAYS tried to provide the best art for the job, no matter whose work it was. If I was looking out for my pocketbook and not my customer’s best interest, I wasn’t doing my job as a rep.

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